A Trick of Nature: A Novel

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9780393048544: A Trick of Nature: A Novel

With the realism of John Updike and the psychological astuteness of Alice Hoffman, this "absorbing, elegant novel . . . remains surprising to the end" (Suzanne Berne).

Greg Goodman is a very ordinary guy―a not-very-ambitious school teacher and football coach who takes his attractive wife, Patty, their twin adolescent daughters, and the comfortable ease of their suburban routine for granted. Until lightening strikes―both literally and figuratively―as Greg runs a pattern with his junior varsity team during a muggy August practice and fifteen-year-old Timothy Phelps is directly struck. This crisis threatens to unravel all the strands anchoring Greg to his normal habits of being. When Timothy's mother, a stripper and addict who abandoned Timothy as a child, enters the mix, Greg discovers his own complicated and misguided longings. As in her debut novel, Suzanne Matson employs "crisp, clean writing . . . [and] compassionately drawn characters" (New York Times Book Review) to create a gripping story about the nature of love, trust, family, and marriage. Set in a seemingly safe world of split-levels and carefully tended lawns, A Trick of Nature powerfully captures the characters' emerging self-awareness as they are forced to test the assumptions they hold about themselves and the connections that bind them.

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About the Author:

Suzanne Matson, a 2012 fellow in fiction writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the author of three novels and two books of poetry. She teaches at Boston College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

It was a perfect June day: clear, windless, hot without being sticky. Mitch was on the driving range when Greg arrived. Greg waved, then went inside to buy his own bucket. He found a place on the line and began briskly sending the balls down the range in long, hooking arcs. Mitch kept trying to correct Greg’s swing, but Greg didn’t have the patience to be a real student of the game. When anyone gave him pointers, he knew he acquired a glazed, unlistening attitude. Greg’s reason for golfing was to get his butt off the couch, plain and simple. He found that after a round of nine holes he usually had the energy to take care of some little chore like changing the oil in the car, or stopping at the hardware store to buy a set of hinges for the basement door that hung askew.

He whacked away at the golf balls, not really caring how far or straight they were going. He liked the pleasure of swinging the club until his whole upper body felt warm and loose, and hearing in rapid succession the crack of each ball against the driver.

They waited their turn to tee off. The foursome they were behind was going to slow them down today, that much was sure, a quartet of grandfathers in pastel slacks—jocose, relaxed, and none too spry. They moved as if they had all the time in the world, which Greg assumed they did, in their respective retirements. During summers Greg had time to waste, too. He just wasn’t able to accept it like these geezers. Maybe that was his problem: summers felt too much like retirement to him. But retirement represented the end; and at thirty-eight, what had he accomplished? What had he even begun?

Every summer vacation he experienced this uncomfortable feeling of being without compass, adrift on a raft of days he was expected to steer in some purposeful way. At the end of each school year he forgot what summer felt like, and he behaved like the rest of the teachers, like the students, even, as they all leaned forward into June, their collective longing for freedom seeming to actually tip the school toward the powdery dust of the baseball diamond, the mowed football field, the empty, sun-heated bleachers.

This year was like the others. When the weeks arrived he had been so impatient for—time he would spend fixing things around the house, reading, lifting weights every afternoon in the cool of the basement—he felt obscurely abandoned, confused by the falling away of routine and hurry. He washed up the breakfast dishes after Patty and the girls left the house. He puttered through the morning until it was time to make a sandwich, the radio he turned on for company playing rock from twenty years ago, songs that still felt fresh to him. Some mornings he couldn’t even wait until noon for this ritual, not out of hunger, but out of impatience to move to a new thing.

As soon as he had the time to begin his projects of self improvement and home improvement, they ceased to interest him. He knew that Patty expected to hear about something he did that day when she returned home from work—lumber bought, a trip to the library, a shrub uprooted and moved farther away from the house—and he resented what he imagined as this wifely investment in how he spent his time, her interest in his days making them seem less his own. They spent the summer envying each other. Her complaint, voiced often enough so that he knew when it was coming, a particular little sigh of fatigue preceding it, was that she never had enough time to catch up on things at home.

For his part, Greg envied his wife her alarm set at six, her ten-minute allotment of shower time, the fact that she had to put on real clothes and not just shorts and a T-shirt, and her last-minute dash around the house to gather up her keys and bag. He disliked how when he gave her a peck of a kiss and wished her a good day, he saw that in her mind she was already in the driveway, on the road, settling into her office chair and booting up her computer. She would have her neat In box, her neat Out box, and at the start of every day In would be empty, or nearly so. She would have her computerized calendar, with little chimes and bits of music periodically reminding her to leave her desk for meetings and appointments. By the end of the day Out would be fairly bulging with accomplished tasks.

Even the twins had a tight schedule now that they worked as summer baby-sitters, which meant they left the house earlier than their mother, and returned later. Their days were regimented by the needs of the children they tended: naps and mealtimes, snack breaks and play periods, and afternoon walks to the playground that they synchronized with one another. He pictured the twins with their charges approaching the playground from opposite directions, meeting at the slides like the wings of a butterfly coming together. But with or without their jobs, the twins wouldn’t be company for their father during the summer. They were fifteen now, not old enough to drive places by themselves but old enough to have friends who could drive them. They strove never to be seen in his company outside the house.

Greg had his odd summer employments. He taught Driver’s Ed in June, and coached for the football team in August. During the trough of five weeks or so in between, Patty would usually take a week off for their vacation, but never more than that, because July was the beginning of the fiscal year for her accounting firm, and there was too much work to do.

Those weeks he was at loose ends felt too long to be unoccupied, yet too short to begin a new way of life. Of course, if it had been Patty’s time off she would be up early, throwing rugs out of the house to air, taking down venetian blinds, plotting neat little rows of marigolds and petunias. Greg meant to be like that too, disciplined and focused, but somehow he always wound up watching cable reruns of Star Trek in the afternoon, the lazy, secret glow of daytime TV imparting the same mix of pleasure and malaise it had given him as a kid.

The ebbing of his self-worth corresponded to the ebbing of his desires in general, and he seldom reached out for Patty at night during the season of midsummer. When everyone else he knew seemed to look younger than usual in summer shorts and tan, and to delight in the aphrodisiacal mixture of slowly cooling patio combined with gin and tonic and the primitive flare of the lighter fluid on coals, he did not. The evening barbecues didn’t feel like hard-won snippets of vacation he deserved after a long day. He dutifully handled the tongs, tweezed the charred disks of hamburger onto the toasted rolls his wife and girls held out, drank his beer and stretched out on the lounge chair, listening to Patty talk about her meetings as the stars gradually appeared, first one at a time, then in a great swatch, like the rhinestones Patty had punched into her denim jacket when they were both in high school.

The girls would wander off, leaving the two of them alone. Patty would wind down, high on her day, her drink, the soft breeze blowing through their yard. She would murmur something about the twins, which meant she had tuned her radar in to find them—whether they were doing their nails in a lighted bedroom upstairs, or sprawled in the dark family room blued from the TV, waves of sitcom laughter surging from the open window. Then she would reach over and lightly put her hand on his thigh, sometimes edging the tips of her fingers inside the legs of his shorts, and he would almost unconsciously flex a muscle there, but he wouldn’t reciprocate, wouldn’t reach over to rub her neck, or even rest his palm on her arm. Weirdly, he desired his wife most when she wasn’t there, when he was lying by himself on the couch watching an old episode of Love, American Style or I Dream of Jeannie. That was when he remembered himself as a person with appetites—flashes of the taut, hungry boy he had been, stretched out on his mother’s rug in front of the TV. There was no irony then to the watching, just the cramped longing that came from seeing Barbara Eden’s legs outlined beneath her filmy genie pants, teasing him with the exotic freedom of adulthood. Greg had idolized Major Nelson: his razor-sharp uniform, the fact that his work involved missions, and the lovely, unbelievable secret of his girlfriend in a bottle. When the Major was in one of his frequent welters of confusion—caught between the sexual pull of Jeannie’s charming chaos and the inflexible demands of his military superiors—the preadolescent Greg had keenly sympathized.

the old guys must have felt Mitch and Greg’s antsiness at their heels, because they motioned for them to go ahead on the next hole. Good for them, Greg thought. They weren’t about to let anybody ruin their good time.

“Greg! Long time,” one of them said. Greg squinted against the sun. He recognized Ned Bennett under the plaid cotton hat, the man who had been his father’s internist. The last time he had seen him had been seven years ago in the hospital, by his father’s bedside.

“Family well?” Ned asked.

“Everyone’s fine, thanks.”

“Glad to hear it. We’re going to step aside and wait for you youngsters to play through. Wonderful day, isn’t it? Give my regards to your mother.”

Greg wondered why his old man couldn’t have been more like that—amiable and relaxed, a pleasure to be around. Why hadn’t he ever just gone out and enjoyed a round of golf with a few friends? For one thing, he didn’t have any friends. For another, he would have whined that he was too broke for a ritzy game like golf. Ray Goodman had divided the world into haves and have-nots, and put himself—nothing but a peon for the fat cats who own the plant—squarely in the latter category. But the simple fact was that his father had needed to play the victim. He had never been able to admit that he had the power to enjoy his life. And ...

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